11 May Hard Times

Ron Tanner, chair of the Writing Department at Loyola College-Maryland, won a grant from the National Parks Service to help Marshallese college students preserve the oral culture of the Marshall Islands. He’s spending the 2008 spring semester (5 months) on Majuro to direct this pilot program, called the Marshall Islands Story Project. To get the full story of his personal experiences, be sure to check the archives to your left.


Newton received a visit this week from an officer of the local bank. He said that Newton owes the bank $2500 because Newton co-signed the loan for a friend who has not returned from the States. Maybe Newton’s friend planned it this way. Maybe the temptation to stay in the States was too great. Whatever the reason, Newton is disappointed in himself for not being more cautious. I told him it speaks well of his character that he would be trusting and helpful. He’s remarkably calm about it. Actually, his dilemma is fairly common. Newton knows of four other people who have been similarly used recently. He says the practice of jumping loans has increased in the last six month as the economy has worsened.

Majuro taxi fares have risen to a dollar. Gas is now $5.75 a gallon. A bag of rice is $8.50, up from $7.35. I don’t know how people manage on Majuro. I estimate groceries prices to be at least a third higher than in the States. It’s my biggest expense. A bag of oranges costs me $7-10. I saw a 6-once bag of fresh peas yesterday selling at the grocery for $9.45. Who can afford stuff like that? Your best bet is canned food, but none of it is as cheap as what we’re used to in the States. I hear that stateside business at Starbuck’s is down by nearly 30%. Hard times are upon us. The Marshallese will suffer more than most, I fear. Recently, I attended a church service where most of the parishioners couldn’t afford to contribute to the offering basket. Instead, they pretended to make contributions, each person walking up to the basket and placing pinched fingers inside as if dropping in money. By the time the collection was done, the basket held about six dollars, mostly in small change and a few singles, two of which were mine.

School’s out in a week. Nearly all of my students are graduating and going on to the University of Hawaii at Hilo. But these are the best and brightest—the lucky ones. Only a fraction of the students enrolled at the College of the Marshall Islands go on to four-year colleges. I’m not sure what becomes of the rest. I guess the answer is everywhere I look, at the idle young who are passing the time in the shade of a tree or on the basketball court or on the shore. Whether they go or stay, these students frame a problem for CMI. The government wants the college to focus more on skills and job-training. It just said so last week. But the college’s charter demands that it send its students on to 4-year colleges. Just this week, accreditation visitors from the States told the college to stay the course and secure its accreditation so that CMI students can transfer their credits to stateside colleges and universities.

After a four-year struggle, CMI is nearly accredited. It’s taking a lot of time, effort, and resources. Some argue that it’s a small gain for too great a cost, because CMI is looking to the States for direction instead of looking to its own students. But CMI argues that it’s only living up to its charter. If the government wants to change the charter and relieve CMI of its obligation to sustain the highest accreditation, then so be it. But that would be a messy change, it seems. The best hope among observers is that, after CMI wins its accreditation finally, it will turn its attention to much-needed local initiatives. CMI’s nursing program, for instance, is highly praised by all. Similar programs would be of great benefit to the community and the nation, especially as the U.S. missile site on Kwajalein has cut Marshallese jobs by nearly 20%. The debate is further complicated , however, by a recent report that underscores the nation’s dire need for teachers whose training exceeds a junior college degree. This would seem to support CMI’s current direction.


Just outside my window, fireworks are booming over the lagoon. Today, May 1, is Constitution Day, the republic celebrating its independence. The Marshall Islands won independence from the U.S. in 1986, after forty-one years of being a “trust territory.” Critics have called the time of U.S. “trusteeship” the era of occupation. As citizens of a trust territory, the Marshallese got little or no say in what happened to them. The most egregious example was the U.S. government’s testing of nuclear bombs here from 1946-58.


Today’s celebration started with a parade of school children from the island’s huge auditorium to the Nitijela, the legislative building, where dignitaries did their dignified thing. Noticeably absent was the national orchestra. It remains a mystery as to why the current government will not employ the band. Today’s music was recorded. I hear a lot about the new government attempting to right so many wrongs done by the old government. Newton himself was done wrong by the former government when it awarded someone else a job he had won (through an examination process). Recently, he applied for a job as Consulate General, a position he would serve in Arkansas, where the largest population of Marshallese live (they work in a Tyson chicken plant in Springdale, AK). He’d make a great Consulate General. And I’d get to see him if he moved to the States. But, then, he wouldn’t be here, on Majuro, to direct the Story Project after I’m gone. That would be a loss.

He and I have decided that we’re officially behind schedule. For so small an island, it’s remarkably difficult to get to people. Daily life here is so fluid, something always causes delay or postponement. It’s going to be a scramble to meet our goal of gathering nine stories per category (traditional tales, life stories, and nuclear survivor tales). We’re still planning on taking our final field trip to Wotje. Air Marshall Islands is flying again. So no long boat trip for me, thank you.

The rains have come in earnest and so my motel has turn its water on again—and most of the time I can get warm (never hot) water. I have exhausted all culinary possibilities for daily meals that can be prepared in a motel room with a microwave. I’ve settled into a diet of salads (lots of mung bean sprouts), cereal (Cheerios), soup (Japanese, packaged), peanut butter (organic), pasta (really bad-but-edible when microwaved), and chocolate bars. I’ve gone cold turkey on the cookies. Too many nights I found myself gaping at the TV and downing an entire box of Arnott’s raspberry shortbreads. Thank you to Dave Belz and friends who sent me a second care package. I’m rationing these treats. The Planter’s trail mix my students find most exotic. They’re thrilled when they see something that can’t be found on island. Final note: apparently the entry for “Arno III, Story-Teller Secrets” (April 3) never posted—which is why Mom thinks we didn’t get any stories. It’s worth checking out.